There's something special about fishing freestone rivers and streams during the two to three week time span at the tail end of spring runoff. As these waterways are dropping and clearing, the trout are remarkably willing to take a fly. In Montana that window of opportunity is closing, the transition into the dog days of summer is in full force. Looking back, there's no denying that the past three weeks or so of post-runoff fishing has offered up some of the best freestone fishing since, well, the same time last year.
Make no mistake, the fishing that is in store for the remainder of the Montana summer is incredible...terrestrials, PMDs, caddis and attractor dries make for plenty of action. And the higher elevation, headwater fisheries are just now coming into their prime for the summer. The spectacular fall season can't be discounted either, what with its lonesome rivers and lovestruck browns. Of course the pre-runoff fishing of April ranks right up there as well, often presenting the first opportunities of the year to catch trout on the surface during times of BWO activity. Yet the season that arguably trumps all of these is that amazing post-runoff window in July.
During this period, the trout are generally stacked up in predictable holding water. The trout haven't seen a hook in a month or more, and fishing pressure often remains relatively light (salmonfly rivers excluded) due to many anglers apprehension to wade or row bank-full rivers. Water temperatures are at ideal levels, hatches are occurring and the trout are hungry after a prolonged period of poor feeding conditions in muddy water.
Whether it is a small creek, or a big brawling river, this period of time often provides some of the most productive fishing of the year on that particular fishery. Anglers can expect high numbers of fish per rod, but what's more is that many freestones will give up some larger than average trout at this time. On Montana's Gallatin River for example, trout in the 12- to 15-inch range are standard fare throughout the year, but during this post-runoff time period, persistent anglers are suddenly tying into fish of 18 inches or better with some regularity (see the above photo of a 19.5 inch Gallatin brown caught 2 weeks ago). This phenomenon plays out time and time again, year in and year out on freestone trout rivers throughout the west. From Arizona's Black River in May, to Montana's Yellowstone River in July, it is a great time to be on the water.
It's an undeniably difficult window of opportunity to predict. Many an angler has traveled great distances, only to arrive at the river's edge to find a raging, muddy torrent of water. Wait too long and many of the lower elevation waterways will be low and warm, their finned denizens less active. The potential reward is worth the risk, for if you keep your ear to the ground and manage to time it right next year, you just might be in for some of the best fishing you've ever experienced.